Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by M. John Harrison


Light isn't the most accessible of novels. M. John Harrison doesn't talk down to his audience, and he isn't afraid to confuse people, telling a story that follows the lives of characters separated by 400 years and in extremely different circumstances.

Michael Kearney is a scientist working on some groundbreaking discoveries in quantum physics. We don't actually see him doing a lot of research during this novel, so an understanding of this difficult branch of science is thankfully not necessary. Kearney is instead preoccupied with his fragmented personal life, with dice, and with his desperate attempts to flee an entity which has been stalking him for years. He doesn't know why the creature known as the Shrander is after him, but he fears the worst and is prepared to go to extremes not to have to find out.

Another thread of the narrative is set in 2400, when humans have reached the stars and begun to interact with alien cultures, and in some cases to go to war with them. Seria Mau is the pilot of the White Cat, and in some ways she seems to almost be her ship, so closely is she integrated into its systems. Her body has been altered so that she interacts directly with it. On first impressions she seems like a nasty piece of work, a mercenary who ruthlessly kills her own people, unreliable and petulant. And if those weren't character flaws enough, she's also a wanted woman.

Light is an odd novel, and always a little under-explained. The weirdness doesn't let up after we are introduced to the main characters and their lives. Instead it intensifies throughout. Light requires more effort to get into than most books, and it's not always clear whether this will pay off. The characters, for instance, are a mixture of neurotics, psychopaths and feckless drifters, none of whom come across as immediately likeable.

One of the main protagonists is Ed Chianese, the "twink", which is to say a kind of futuristic junkie. A former thrill-seeker and adventurer, he has been living his life in some sort of virtual-reality tank. But his debts are due, and various violent thugs are keen to collect. Light features a lot of almost casual violence, dealt out as though life is cheaper than ever. It's a very masculine novel, with plenty of action and an unromantic take on sex and relationships. Sex is frequently presented as nothing more than a practical thing that people need to do, like eating and sleeping. Yet that's not to say that this is an insensitive book: Harrison has a way of capturing the insecurities of his characters and conveying their inner turmoil through the briefest of gestures and through brilliantly understated dialogue.

This novel is rather unpredictable, and it's not very easy to see how the three main narrative strands are connected with each other until quite late on. The ending, whilst it does succeed in tying a lot of things together, may still leave readers feeling disconcerted. The characters, although they are original enough to be interesting, are always a little hard to warm to. Light is a novel with the exotic details and high adrenaline levels of escapist space opera, but it doesn't have enough humanity to make it truly enjoyable in that sense. So it relies a good deal on its ideas to make it compelling. Its view of the future is pleasingly quirky, but not radical. Since it touches only briefly on the details of the kind of physics Kearney is supposed to be researching, this might as well be science fantasy. It's an unconventional novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy bizarre science fiction that's a little more challenging than the norm.

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson